Mixed or Not, Why Are We Still Taking Pictures of “Race”?

Just days ago PolicyMic put up a piece entitled “National Geographic Concludes What Americans Will Look Like in 2050, and It’s Beautiful.” In it writer Zak Cheney-Rice attempts to address the so-called rise of multiracial peoples which has captured/enchanted the public eye and with which the media has become deeply enamored. He spotlights a retrospective and admiring look at National Geographic’s “The Changing Face of America” project of last year featuring a series of multiracial portraits by well-known German photographer Martin Schoeller, and also peripherally cites some statistics/graphs that demonstrate the explosion of the mixed-race population.

Changing Faces

(Image source)

“In a matter of years,” Cheney-Rice writes, “We’ll have Tindered, OKCupid-ed and otherwise sexed ourselves into one giant amalgamated mega-race.” Despite admitting racial inequity persists, he still flirts with the idea of an “end” approaching (presumably to race and by association racism), and suggests while we’re waiting for things to get better, we might “…applaud these growing rates of intermixing for what they are: An encouraging symbol of a rapidly changing America. 2050 remains decades away, but if these images are any preview, it’s definitely a year worth waiting for.” We are then perhaps left with this rather unfortunate centerpiece of his statement, “Here’s how the ‘average American’ will look by the year 2050”:

Portrait

Not surprisingly, the Net erupted in controversy/debate; some standing by and championing the purported beauty of race-mixing as hope for a post-race future; many others pointing out the absurdity of a multiracial=postracial equation, angrily accusing the article of privileging light-skinned mixes thereby centering whiteness and upholding an age-old white dominant race hierarchy. NPR blogger Gene Demby @GeeDee215 tweeted, “Dunno what to do with the fact that the idea we’ll screw racism out of existence is considered a serious position.” A day later Jia Tolentino wrote a rebuttal on the hairpin in which she calls the piece “dumb,” “shallow,” “shortcut-minded,” and charges it with appearing “researched and progressive while actually eliding all of the underlying structural concerns that will always influence what race (and attendant opportunity) means in America far more than the distracting visual pleasure of a girl that looks like Rashida Jones.” She too also unfortunately comes to rest again on this particular portrait, “Look at this freckled, green-eyed future. Look at how beautiful it is to see everything diluted that we used to hate”:

I have been thinking a lot about this face which, thanks to National Geographic and PolicyMic, is now flying around the World Wide Web and has become the stage for much heated race-arguing. What is particularly striking to me, and what I have written on before, is that this person is an actual living, breathing human being — but she is not being treated as such. She is being wielded as a tool, a device, maybe even a weapon? Her physical body is used as a site for others to play out their racial theorizing while her own voice and story remain conspicuously absent.

What I think is incredibly important here (and doesn’t seem to have come up in the ensuing disputes) is why portraits designed to quantify/quality racialized appearance were taken with such intent in the first place? Photography which captures a person’s image for the sole and express purpose of measuring then discussing their supposed race is not new and frankly, like pretty much everything race-related, has a long and insidious history. It’s known as racial-type photography and it was popularized in the late 19th century by white pseudo-scientists to “prove” the superiority of some races, and the inferiority of others. Anthropologists used photography to make anatomical comparisons, then racially classify and rank human subjects on an evolutionary scale “seeming to confirm that some peoples were less evolved than others and would therefore benefit from imperial control” (Picture Imperfect: Photography and Eugenics, 1879-1940 by Anne Maxwell, p.21). One of first scientists to use photography to record the anatomy of different races was Swiss-born zoologist and anthropologist Louis Agassiz who lived in America and in 1865 was the nation’s most celebrated naturalist. Agassiz, along with the help of portrait photographer Thomas Zealy, produced some of the earliest racial-type photographs of African slaves to appear in the US. He “wanted to see if the distinct traits of African-born slaves survived in American-born offspring. This would prove his theory that environmental factors wrought very few changes to the type, which by and large remained stable over time.” He staked his whole scientific career on the belief that the different races were created separately by God and in accordance with a divine, preordained plan (Maxwell, pp.23-24):

Enslaved Woman

 

(1850) photograph of an enslaved woman in South Carolina by Thomas Zealy for Louis Agassiz

 

Other influential examples of racial-type photography include: those produced by “British anthropologists Thomas Henry Huxley and John Lanprey [who] developed guidelines for the anthropometrical photographing of native subjects” (Maxell, p.29), those produced in 1871 Germany by the Berlin Society for Anthropology, Ethnology and Prehistory which “set out to assemble anthropological images from around the world, with the eventual purpose of disseminating these to scientific institutions in Germany and Britain” (Maxwell, p.39), and those by Australian photographer Paul Foelsche, “among the best examples of photographs of colonized peoples taken under oppressive conditions” (Maxwell, p.35):

Foelsche

(1870) untitled portrait by Paul Foelsche

Of course the overt, blatant racism in this older practice of racial-type photography would not be acceptable today. But has the practice of “photographing race” then gone away completely? Has our need to scan and declare the racial appearance of others for the purpose of valuation diminished? Apparently not. We’ve now got National Geographic’s 2013 endeavor (photographed by a white man through a racialized lens no less). We also have Time Magazine’s infamous 1993 cover “The New Face of America: How Immigrants Are Shaping the World’s First Multicultural Society” which was the computer generated face of a mixed-race woman created by merging people from various racial/ethnic backgrounds and who I have read her creators subsequently sort of fell in love with Pygmalion-style:


(1993) Time Magazine cover, “The New Face of America”

And we have Kip Fulbeck’s 2001 photo project of over 1200 volunteer subjects who self-identified as “Hapa” meant to promote awareness, recognition and give voice to the millions of multiracial/multiethnic individuals of Asian and Pacific Islander descent. Though Kip Fulbeck is aware of racial-type photographic history and acknowledges/challenges it in his book Half Asian 100% Hapa some feel his attempt to stand old forms on their heads, doesn’t work. He himself is a person of mixed-race Asian descent and certainly being a person of color behind the camera lends credence to the idea of reclamation and redefinition. Nevertheless at the end of the day, we are still left with a collection of photographs meant to capture race in some formation.

.

Apparently now we are comfortable shifting the practice of race-scanning and many of its same foundational values onto the ambiguous appearance of “different” looking people. Racism is incredibly adaptive and morphs to fit the times. I suggest that while modern race-photography believes itself to be celebrating the dismantling of race, it may actually be fooling us (and itself) with a fantastically complicated show of smoke and mirrors. What a critical mixed race view can offer at this juncture is something so crucial. We need to continually challenge and examine our desire to racially file people. We need to lift our eyes from the ground and take off the rose-colored glasses. We need to put away the headphones, turn off the music and turn on our ears. We need to make much, MUCH more space for something ultimately pretty simple — the stories of actual people themselves which in the end, will paint the real picture.

~ Guest blogger Sharon Chang writes at the blog MultiAsian Families.

Lena Dunham and the Trouble with (White) ‘Girls’

Cast of Girls sitting on a bench

 

(Image source)

It seems almost a foregone conclusion that an exploration of the trouble with white women in contemporary American popular culture would include a discussion of Lena Dunham and her HBO series ‘Girls.’  I say it’s a foregone conclusion because there’s been a lot written about Dunham and ‘Girls’ and whiteness already, and yet I think her contribution to popular culture deserves a mention in this series.

In case you’ve missed this blip on the pop culture radar, Lena Dunham is the 27-year-old woman – often referred to as a ‘prodigy’ – who is the writer, director, star of a show on the cable network HBO. The show, ‘Girls’, is about Hannah Horvath (played by Dunham) and her three close friends, young women very much like Hannah/Lena, living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn and trying to find happiness in relationships and careers in New York City.  The show premiered in April, 2012 and is now in its third season.  According to Dunham, the show is meant to ‘fill a space’ left by previous hit television shows about white women in New York City – ‘Sex in the City’ and ‘Gossip Girls’. Dunham says:

“I knew that there was a connection because it’s women in New York, but it really felt like it was tackling a different subject matter. Gossip Girl was teens duking it out on the Upper East Side and Sex and the City was women who figured out work and friends and now want to nail family life. There was this whole in between space that hadn’t really been addressed.”

Perhaps it is this claim at something like redressing a lack of representation on television shows that has gotten Ms. Dunham in such hot water among critics. From the very beginning, the show has been beset with criticism about how the show handles (and doesn’t handle) race. One piece from FoxNews the week the show premiered suggested the show was just about ‘white girls, money and whining.’ 

 

The actors in the HBO series 'Girls'(Image source)

It’s possible that this criticism of Dunham’s ‘Girls’ is unfair. As Joe Caramanica writing at the New York Times accurately observes:

“… ‘Girls’ is hardly alone in its whiteness. Far more popular shows like ‘Two and a Half Men’ or ‘How I Met Your Mother’ blithely exist in a world that rarely considers race. They’re less scrutinized, because unlike the Brooklyn-bohemian demimonde of ‘Girls,’ the worlds of those shows are ones that writers and critics — the sort who both adore and have taken offense at ‘Girls’ — have little desire to be a part of. White-dominant television has almost always been the norm. Why would ‘Girls’ be any different?”

Indeed, why would any one expect ‘Girls’ would be any different than the rest of what’s on white-dominant television? So why the intensity of response to Dunham and her show?

HBO Girls Poster

(Image source)

Part of the problem, as Francie Latour notes, is the demographically skewed setting of the show. Latour writes:

“…the problem I have with Dunham is that the vision of New York City she’s offering us in 2012 — like Sex and the Cityin 1998 and for that matter Friends in 1994 — is almost entirely devoid of the people who make up the large majority of New Yorkers, and have for some time now: Latinos, Asians and blacks. It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population. Much of Girls is actually set in Brooklyn, a borough where just one-third of the population is white. Yet as Dunham’s character, 24-year-old unemployed writer Hannah Horvath, and her friends fumble through life with cutting wit and low self-esteem, they do it in a virtually all-white bubble.”

The ‘all-white bubble’ that Latour references is not just in the New York City through which the characters move but it has to do with the writing and casting of the show as well. A number of people, including Latour, have voiced strong criticism of the show for now featuring any women of color on the show.

To be sure, there are plenty of defenders of the show and Ms. Dunham.  In a rather convoluted defense titled, “Lena Dunham: Attacked for No Good Reason,” written by Hilton Als and published in The New Yorker no less, says:

“Also, isn’t Dunham doing women of color a favor by not trying to insert them into her world where ideas about child-rearing, let alone man and class aspirations, tend to be different? John Lennon once said if you want your kids to stay white, don’t have them listen to black music. And I think it’s crazy to assume Dunham hasn’t. She grew up in New York, and you can see it in her clothes and body: no white girl allows herself to look like that if she didn’t admire the rounder shapes, and more complicated stylings, that women of color tend to pursue as their idea of beauty.”

Uhm, ok. Let me see if I’ve got this. Dunham is “doing women of color a favor” by not trying to “insert them into her world”? But it’s all ok, because clearly, look at the way she dresses and how much weight she carries, she’s clearly ‘down’ with women of color and “their idea of beauty.”  Got it.

Another defense is a bit more critical but follows along the same lines. In “‘Girls’: The Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” Chez Pazienza writes:

I think that the criticism Lena Dunham’s been on the receiving end of from some in the black and Hispanic community is unfair. In case you haven’t been following — and for your own sake, I hope you actually have better things to do than concern yourself with this kind of “controversy” — a host of socially conscious journalists of color, many of them female, have complained that Dunham’s show is too “white,” that none of the titular girls on Girls are black or brown. The argument is a little dumb at face value, simply because Dunham herself is white and it’s not like that’s something she can change — and while New York City, both real and the depressing hellhole depicted on the show, is indeed a melting pot, let’s be honest and admit that it’s not exactly unlikely that people like Dunham’s character on the show and her small cadre of friends would all be the same shade of white.

Hell, the show wouldn’t be what it is — cloying and insipid — without the pervading stench of white privilege and the ability for characters to mumble complaints about the kind of shit only privileged white kids have the luxury of complaining about. It’s been a common refrain among critics of Girls, but it’s a show about white people problems — and like everyone else, I say that as derogatorily as possible — and trying to shoehorn a demographic into the equation which undoubtedly brings a different set of concerns to the table would be a ham-fisted nod to political correctness and little more.

I almost agree with Pazienza here. Almost. I mean, there is something about the cloying, insipid white privilege of the show that makes it hard to look away from the television when it’s on, but that’s what we call a “resistive reading.” (If you’re not familiar with this term, go read some John Fiske.)

This is Pazienza’s reading of the show. This critique of white privilege is not what the creators of the show intended. Watching a show because the characters are unintentionally loathsome, when the creators of the show don’t intend the characters to be loathsome, I think we call that “hate watching.”

 

And then there’s the racism.

After Jenna Wortham wrote on the Hairpin about her disappointment in the show’s overwhelming whiteness (“these girls… are beautiful, they are ballsy, they are trying to figure it out… I just wish I saw a little more of myself on screen, right alongside them”) one of the shows writer’s, Lesley Arfin, responded with a Tweet,

referring to the film ‘Precious’ which featured a mostly black cast:

“What really bothered me most about Precious was that there was no representation of ME.”

Lesley Arfin seems to enjoy being provocative about race and language. I’m not sure whether she falls into the category of “hipster racism” as some have suggested, or is merely (still) learning that there is no such thing as “ironic racism.” 

Dunham’s views are equally disturbing. Reflecting on a trip to Japan in 2011, Dunham wrote an essay, “In Which We Regularly Played Ping-Pong with the Princess Masako.”  Meant to be a travelogue written in the tone Dunham has cultivated, the essay merely comes across as offensive and racist. In a section called “Yellowish Fever,” Dunham writes:

“I know I said I could never imagine a Japanese affair, but I’ve changed my mind. Kazu, the art handler hanging my mom’s show, is gorgeous like the strong, sexy, dreadlocked Mongol in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (causing my sister to email the instruction: “Yeah, girl. crouch that tiger, hide that dragon. P.S. That’s a Chinese movie”).

Throughout the essay, the primary way she seems to be able to relate to Japanese people is as consumables, collectables or oddities, never as fully human.

This view seems evident in the show as well.

In an attempt to address the criticisms about race in the first season of the show, the second season included a new character, Sandy, a black man who is Hannah/Lena’s love interest.

 

Hannah and Sandy 'Girls'

 

The relationship lasts barely an episode, and then they are breaking up and hurling racial accusations at each other.  From Judy Berman’s review at The Atlantic:

“I also would love to know how you feel about the fact that two out of three people on death row are black men,” she says. “Wow, Hannah. I didn’t know that. Thank you for enlightening me that things are tougher for minorities,” he shoots back. Soon, he’s mocking her for exoticizing him—”‘Oh, I’m a white girl and I moved to New York and I’m having a great time and I got a fixed gear bike and I’m gonna date a black guy and we’re gonna go to a dangerous part of town,’” he scoffs. “And then they can’t deal with who I am”—and she’s feebly turning around the accusation on him. “The joke’s on you, because you know what? I never thought about the fact that you were black once,” Hannah says when it’s clear the breakup is really happening, despite the fact that she’s the one who introduced race into the conversation. “That’s insane.” Sandy tells her. “You should, because that’s what I am.” By the time he asks Hannah to leave, both have admitted they don’t feel good about what they’ve said to each other. The viewer at home, witnessing such shrewdly observed yet ultimately unresolved racial and political tension, is bound to feel just as rattled.

While that scene includes some fine writing, it’s the frame that’s perpetuates the tropes of the sexualized (and dangerous) black man and the adventurous white woman who is playing out her fantasies at his expense. Once the show has “dealt with” the race issue in this episode, the issue – and all the people of color – disappear from view.

Berman ends her essay agreeing with Ta-Nehisi Coates – basically, that Dunham shouldn’t worry about these critiques and she should just be her ‘authentic self,’ to use Coates’ terms.  According to Berman, the solution is:

“…in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.”

What’s missing in this analysis is any consideration of the considerable set of barriers contained in the phrase “they need the same platform” that she’s been afforded.  While people of color are the stars on YouTube, it’s still white girls that get the contracts at HBO.

If ‘Girls’ were a show about four white women but it was at all thoughtful, reflexive or critical of their whiteness, I’d have a different take on the show. However, Dunham refers to the show’s whiteness a “complete accident.”    And that’s different than a show that’s critical about the whiteness it’s reproducing. In fact, that’s the opposite of being thoughtful and reflexive about whiteness.

Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Here’s your Monday research brief.

Today, we’re featuring this new book by Charles Hyde, professor emeritus of history at Wayne State University, Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II  (h/t @KidadaEWilliams).

Arsenal of Democracy Book Cover

 

 

 

Here’s the abstract for the book:

Throughout World War II, Detroit’s automobile manufacturers accounted for one-fifth of the dollar value of the nation’s total war production, and this amazing output from “the arsenal of democracy” directly contributed to the allied victory. In fact, automobile makers achieved such production miracles that many of their methods were adopted by other defense industries, particularly the aircraft industry. In Arsenal of Democracy: The American Automobile Industry in World War II, award-winning historian Charles K. Hyde details the industry’s transition to a wartime production powerhouse and some of its notable achievements along the way.

Hyde examines several innovative cooperative relationships that developed between the executive branch of the federal government, U.S. military services, automobile industry leaders, auto industry suppliers, and the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, which set up the industry to achieve production miracles. He goes on to examine the struggles and achievements of individual automakers during the war years in producing items like aircraft engines, aircraft components, and complete aircraft; tanks and other armored vehicles; jeeps, trucks, and amphibians; guns, shells, and bullets of all types; and a wide range of other weapons and war goods ranging from search lights to submarine nets and gyroscopes. Hyde also considers the important role played by previously underused workers-namely African Americans and women-in the war effort and their experiences on the line.

Arsenal of Democracy includes an analysis of wartime production nationally, on the automotive industry level, by individual automakers, and at the single plant level. For this thorough history, Hyde has consulted previously overlooked records collected by the Automobile Manufacturers Association that are now housed in the National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library. Automotive historians, World War II scholars, and American history buffs will welcome the compelling look at wartime industry in Arsenal of Democracy.

 

You can listen to a podcast with the author here.

Colorblindness is a Real Problem

**This post is dedicated to all the strong people of the world who persevere every day for justice in the face of mass ignorance, resistance and a fusillade of criticism that the world we imagine is simply a “utopia” that we will never reach. You are critical in the face of widespread passivity. You are brave in the face of conditioned acquiescence. I salute you.**

Sitting in a room filled with university students, who passively accept a status quo that is shoved down their throats, is deeply distressing. I am that person in the class who never stops questioning the mainstream paradigm and traditional liberal way of thinking- who won’t just accept the way things are; this simultaneously drains me and exhilarates me. I call it a state of being “hopelessly inspired.” The pain of being surrounded by pacified individuals is not to be undervalued, especially when you yourself cannot stop questioning why things are the way that they are and why we, as a global society, aren’t doing enough about it.

The truth is, my mind never stops working. I am constantly criticizing and questioning the state of our global affairs. I will not passively accept injustice. I will not stop asking questions that matter. I will not stop trying to conjure up new ways for us to solve our world problems. But, (and this is a massive but) I live in a global society where most people do not care to burden themselves with such worries. It is truly disheartening and depressing to be around people who ask you things like: “Why do you care so much? Don’t take everything so personally!” One of the most difficult tasks in the world is to keep your breath in a world that is actively suffocating you.

So here’s my story about how I got mad in one of my classrooms because of categorically false statements about inequality, institutional racism, white privilege, and discrimination. I have written up a transcript of the discussion and picked out key parts that also represent a wider culture of ignorance and colorblindness. All these statements came directly from students in my class; my responses are verbatim. I want to point out that the blame does not lie with my fellow students, as they are only drops in the ocean; rather, I have used them as a means to express a worldwide problem.

*In a political philosophy seminar about equality*

Person 1: Equality and racism are not related. We don’t need to discuss race if we are discussing equality.

Me: That is very easy for you to say as white, privileged male.

P1: That is very unfair.

Me: Is it fair that you’ve never had to walk down the street and worry about being stopped and frisked on the basis of your skin color. Or fear being denied a job on the basis that your ethnicity. Or deal with a judge who is two times more likely to charge you because you’re black. Yet you sit here and claim that equality and racism have nothing to do with each other?

P1: What’s that got to do with equality?

Me: Everything.

Person 2: Well I know what racism is. In South Africa there used to be racism against black people and today it is the other way around. Do you know that they have a Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) law that discriminates against white people? I am from South Africa, I know.

Me: Comparing one concentrated incident you had in South Africa is not the same as hundreds of years of oppression that people of color have faced and continue to face. The fact that you receive racist treatment when you are in South Africa because you are white is not the same as facing daily discrimination from a racist system. Racist treatment and systems are two very different things and have completely different outcomes.

P2: It is not fair that you are saying that I do not understand what racism is.

Me: You can never understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of daily discrimination when you have white privilege and do not suffer the same as people of color.

P2: You know, if the IRA came back to Ireland tomorrow and the police wanted to stop and frisk Irish people on the street to prevent terrorism, I wouldn’t stop them. Even if they were white, I would support it. I’m not racist.

Me: You’re not dealing with the issue at hand, which is institutional racism in this country. I don’t want to talk about hypothetical examples of the IRA. How about we talk about the here and now, what’s actually going on. The daily prejudice that people of color face.  You really think that you can understand that because someone was once racist to you in South Africa and now all your white privilege is wiped out? You don’t understand that a racist system operates on a very different level to actual individuals carrying out their prejudices in their society. Systems have mass outreach and affect more lives and that is the institutional racism here and in the U.S.

*Discussion moves on to positive discrimination*

P1: I don’t think it’s fair that women and people of color are given jobs on the basis of their sex or skin color. We should only give work to those people who have earned their position, have worked hard for it and not just got in because of a quota.

Me: You do understand that those systems are in place precisely because people of color and women have been marginalized for so long that without such affirmative actions, the work force continues to be dominated by white, middle-class, males.

P2: People should work for their positions, not be handed them. I just think that if you work hard enough, you can get where you want. We don’t need quotas for people who don’t deserve them.

Me: Again, that is very easy for you to say as a white privileged male. You don’t have to suffer employer discrimination or worry about being denied a job because you are a single mother with children. Clearly you have no understanding of what people of color and women face and you’re not even willing to listen to how institutional racism affects equality of opportunity.

This entire conversation was a reminder to me about how unaffected and invested in their own privilege people truly are, and if this is coming from students of political science, what hope is there really for our global social development? If you have no qualms with our system representation, it is likely because you are already being represented. But there are many sectors of society who are massively marginalized and under-represented and this warrants recognition.

just because

Mass colorblindness is a real problem. It’s that ridiculous Morgan Freeman has argued that ignoring racism will lead for it to go away. Racism doesn’t go away if you ignore it. You are doing more wrong by omitting race out of the conversation of social politics than good. You are ignoring the suffering of millions and causing more pain through colorblindness. The only way to work towards a more equal society (even though I believe that equality itself is an illusion) is through acknowledging our collective wrongdoings and shortcomings. I do not want to exclude those with privilege, I just want them to accept their racial privilege whether it makes them feel uncomfortable or not. You cannot be an ally while you are still colorblind.

People who believe that we all start off on an equal footing and everything that happens to us post-birth is a direct result of our own actions are the problem. People who deny that socio-economic inequalities are a product of our hyper-capitalist society are the problem. We don’t suffer from mass inequalities because people are lazy. Neither do we suffer from them due to individual luck. There is a system in place that not only causes these inequalities, but also perpetuates and exasperates them. Just read oligarchy theory and how a small number of elites agree to a transition to democracy just to maintain their wealth and privilege. Capitalism will always require a docile, underpaid working class that is crushed by the force of our wants (not needs). Racism is not a natural state and we need not accept its existence in our society. I will not pretend that institutional racism does not exist in order to appease and cater to whiteness’ ideals of humanism. My humanism involves addressing everyone’s struggle and not just the ones that relate to me personally. We need more allies, not people who deny the reality of our societies.

You are in an intimate relationship with the rest of humanity and it is your duty to be bothered, to be frustrated, and to get mad. And if you don’t feel anything, you are the problem. Just because you are unaffected by injustice does not mean you should remain mentally, emotionally, and physically unaffected. Privilege is thinking that something is not a problem because it does not affect you personally.

There is nothing wrong with being perpetually sad at the state of the world, as I wrote here. There is too much stigma around sadness. Depressive realism is not a disease; it is an impetus to act. Be sad at all the injustice. Be angry that we are a part of it. Bathe in your anger. Live it. But, do not let it consume you. Channel it into improving the situation. Apply your anger for the betterment of humanity. And be unsatisfied with the state of mass inequalities, institutional racism, greedy capitalist ideals, patriarchy, and white privilege.

I’d rather have dangerous freedom than peaceful slavery any day.

 ~ This post was written by Mohadesa Najumi who is the special College columnist for The Feminist Wire, where this post originally appeared. Mohadesa blogs regularly here.

White Women Warriors, Tourists and Saviors

In today’s installment of the trouble with white women series, I turn to the white women who pose as warriors, visit countries outside the U.S. as tourists, and position themselves as saviors. Here is just one examples of the kind of thing I’m talking about (and no, none of this is an April fool’s joke).

Mindy Budgor is a white woman who at age 32, according to Glamour magazine, “loves shoes, rocks red nail polish…and recently became the world’s first female Maasai warrior.” Budgor’s story appears in a book Warrior Princess: My Quest to Become the First Female Massai Warrior (2013). Glamour magazine also featured her story “as told to” Genevieve Roth in September, 2013. The quotes below are from the Glamour magazine feature.

Warrior Princess

 (Image source)

Mindy Budgor, who grew up, lived and worked in California, on her motivation and (lack of) connection to Massai culture:

“Like so many people, I got stuck in a cycle of “If I can just….” If I can just get into business school, then I’ll be happy. If I can just get this necklace or this bag, then I’ll be happy. Two years had passed and I felt further away from my pledge than ever. I needed a change. I moved to my parents’ empty condo in California and got to work. I sent a mass email, asking friends if they knew of any programs I could get involved in. One responded, raving about a trip she’d taken to help build a health clinic in the Maasai Mara, a game reserve in southwestern Kenya. The area is named after the Maasai people, a group famous for their warriors, said to be among the bravest in history. I was so in.”

Much like the lead character – Elizabeth Gilbert – in Eat, Pray, Love - Budgor sets out on a spiritual quest that moves her to travel to another continent, where indigenous people hold special, mystical knowledge. Here Budgor describes her first impressions and experiences of Massai culture:

“From the moment I arrived, I felt at home. On my first day at the clinic, Winston, a local chief who was fluent in English, gave an introduction to the Maasai culture. He spoke about his people—their history, their reputation for drinking blood and eating raw meat (true) and killing lions (sorta true), and the storied Maasai warriors. “Warriors are crucial to our society,” he said, full of pride. “They protect our community in times of war, like your military protects you. A warrior must be able to go face-to-face with a lion if it tries to kill our cows. A warrior is loved by the community.” I’d been searching for something to believe in, and these men had found it right in the ground where they were raised. I wanted some of what they had.

Near the end of my trip, I got up the courage to ask Winston, “How many women are warriors?”

“None,” he said. “Women are not strong enough or brave enough.” But the Maasai women I saw were full of moxie. When I pressed him, he said, “You have to protect your community. You must eat only what you kill and drink blood. You must train until you are truly without fear. And, also, you have to be a man.”

It’s at the end of this initial trip that Budgor decides that she’s going to become a Massai warrior.  Indeed, she decides to make it her “mission.”  This is  Budgor’s explanation (from The Guardian, inown words):

Winston explained that his tribe was at a crossroads because the Kenyan government was taking away more and more of its land and because global warming meant continual droughts that caused their cattle (their main asset) to die. There was widespread fear among the tribe that the Masai culture will no longer exist in 50 years.

Losing the integrity of a tribe because of westernisation seemed unacceptable to me, but I felt one element of modern life – women’s rights – could help the tribe continue while remaining true to its practices and beliefs.

In choosing to take on a “mission” in Kenya, Budgor positions herself in a long line of white women who have envisioned Africa as a dark continent in need of saving. Vron Ware’s Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism and History is a good place to begin exploring this history if you’re not familiar with the connections between white women, colonialism and imperialism. It seems clear that Ms. Budgor is either unfamiliar, or unconcerned, with this history as she blithely replays it throughout her narrative.

On getting ‘permission’ from her parents  (she’s 32, right? why does she need permission?) to go ‘back’ to Kenya for a second trip in which she’ll pursue warriorhood:

“I’m going back to Kenya,” I told them. “I have been sponsored by an athletic apparel company to train to be a warrior as part of a marketing plan.” The sponsorship part, of course, was a lie. But I knew that if I told them I was doing this on a whim, they’d flip. My father would tell me I was wasting time; my mother would freak out and say, “You’re going to get cholera! Or dysentery! Or die!” But my fib worked. My dad said, “OK, I guess this might help you get into business school.”

In this neoliberal turn, then, she is on a mission not simply to “save” the Massai but if this also helps her get into business school, so much the better.

As it turns out, the first Massai chief she encountered on her first trip, Winston, refuses to collaborate with Budgor’s Warrior Princess scheme (so much for that ‘family’ feeling). Undaunted, Budgor finds another Massai chief who will. Budgor seems drawn to the Massai men, and only rarely do women appear in her story. In one telling anecdote, she recounts the following encounter with one Massai woman:

“At the clinic a Maasai woman in her early thirties named Faith had heard about my plan. “Is it true you want to become a warrior?” I told her it was. At this point my goals were selfish; I only wanted to prove to myself that I could do something brave and hard so that I could find my way in the world. Faith got very serious and said, “Women in my tribe have wanted this for generations, but the tribal chiefs have never allowed it. If you have the ability to go through these rites of passage, I hope you take this seriously.” And I realized this was not just about me. I know how crazy this all sounds—a Jewish girl from California getting this chance. Why me? Why not Faith? I didn’t even think to ask those questions at the time. I just knew if I was given this opportunity, I wasn’t going to squander it.”

Here, Budgor acknowledges that “my goals were selfish.” The shift comes when she determines that she’s doing this for a “cause” rather than just her own goals. Throughout, Budgor configures herself as the heroine who is “given an opportunity” that she’s “not going to squander.” What seems to escape Budgor’s attention – well, is so very much – but in this particular passage, she seems to be clueless to the weight of what Faith says to her:  that “generations” of Massai women have tried to become warriors, but have been barred from it.  Why should Budgor get to do this and not Faith? ”I didn’t even think to ask” is her reply and it seems to be Budgor’s gestalt throughout.

Once her white-woman-to-warrior status has been achieved, Budgor reflects on the significance of this (from The Guardian):

“While making this change is not unanimously accepted by men and women in the tribe, the vast majority believe steps towards equality will help sustain the culture in the long term, and one of those steps is allowing women to become warriors. And I am so proud to say that there are at least 20 girls in Loita who are ready to be part of the next warrior age set. As a result of our training and advocacy, the Masai in Loita, Kenya, are leading the charge to change tribal law and allow all Masai women the right to become warriors.”

The resolution, if you will, for Budgor is a sort of white feminist version of “all’s well that ends well.” After her intervention, “at least 20 girls” are set to become warriors “as a result of our training and advocacy.” The Massai, ignorant and backward until Budgor’s arrival have now been ushered into the vastly superior and more gender egalitarian Western world. It is only through this act of a white savior and “warrior” that the Massai are redeemed.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given how insulting Budgor’s “mission” and her narrative about it are, there has been some significant backlash against her project, for example, herehere and here.

Still, what’s missing in these worthy critiques is an analysis of Budgor specifically as a white woman.  To fully understand Budgor and Gilbert and all the other globe-traveling white women out to save themselves by saving dark-skinned people on distant continents, one needs to understand two key themes from Vron Ware’s work:  1) white femininity is an historically constructed category, and 2) the importance of understanding white feminism as a political movement within racist societies.

It’s these two insights that are central to the point I’ve been trying to make with this series. “White femininity,” in Ware’s terms, or “white women” as I’ve been saying, are an historically constructed category. That structural position brings with it a set of roles, expectations, cultural imperatives that shape the individual people in that position. To be clear, I’m not arguing that there’s something inherent or essential that is at the core wrong with white women. My argument is that it’s this structural position that gets white women, like Budgor, in trouble.

Ware’s second insight – that white feminism emerged from within racist societies – is also key for understanding Budgor. Her brand of feminism, “to help” the Massai in this particular way, makes sense within her worldview because her brand of white feminism comes from the U.S., a society with a deeply rooted racist social structure.

So, if you simply take white U.S. feminism – unexamined for racism – and plop it down in Kenya, it looks a lot like Budgor’s odyssey. And, of course, it makes sense that she got a profile in Glamour magazine to promote her book. It’s a seamless fit.

 >>>> Read next post in series

Research Brief: The Latest Research in the Field

Here is your weekly research brief with some of the latest research in the field.

Research in the Dictionary

My aim in this article is to epistemologically read Deleuze and Guattari (D & G) against critical race theory (CRT) and simultaneously delineate how D & G’s notion of ‘body without organs’ can benefit from CRT. At first glance, especially for language instructors and researchers, these two epistemological frameworks not only compete against each other but in most cases also do not meet. For some, their utility might not even be as obvious given their philosophical and abstract nature. This article is conceptualised to show, in a modest way, their utility on the one hand and how, on the other hand, where and when they meet to create an ‘anti-racism line of flight’. For those who are interested in race, language learning and institutional analysis, this is a line of flight that is full with infinite possibilities, twists and turns and pleasant surprises, which I hope to epistemologically explore.

This paper introduces the concept of place defending and articulates its implications for locality based social policy. Place defending is the protection of one’s local area from unfavourable assessments, in this case of being labelled or perceived as a racist space. Place attachment and identifications with place are drivers of place defending. Person place relationships and their implications for locality based social policies have not yet received sufficient consideration in the literature a significant oversight considering the current policy focus in Australia and the United Kingdom on locality based social policy. In this study of local anti racism in the Australian context, place defending involved the denial of racism and performances of place that reproduced the discourse of tolerance. Print media coverage of the release of national data on racism was analysed alongside a series of interviews with individuals working on anti racism at both local and state/federal levels. Four tools of place defending are discussed: direct action to defend place; spatial deflections; use of minority group members to discredit claims of racism; and critiques of those who make claims about racism. The tools of place defending operated to construct localities as places of tolerance, potentially undermining the case for anti racism.

The film 300 tells a fictionalized account of 300 Spartans’ courageous stand against Xerxes’s Persian army that provided Greece a beacon of masculine strength, independence, and freedom. This study seeks to understand the racist and sexist ideologies represented in the film’s characterization of the Spartan and the Persian armies. To uncover ideologies in the film, we conducted a textual analysis focusing on the intersecting constructions of nation, race, and gender. Our findings suggest that the film advances ideological support for the duty of Whiteness and masculinity in the United States, specifically, and the West, generally, to protect itself from the external, invading forces of the Orientalized racial “other” and against the internal, corrosive forces of femininity.

Drawing from a 2.4-year ethnography with Korean Early Study Abroad (ESA, pre-college-aged study abroad) students in Toronto high schools, I examine the intersections among race, class, language, culture and citizenship (including immigrant status) in the identity construction and language learning of these students. Conceptualising race as a social construct and racism as systemic and institutionalised, I employ sociolinguistic analysis of the data to link issues of race and class together and point out how the ESA students adopt class-based consumption of Korean language and products as a strategy for dealing with the racial and linguistic marginalisation they experienced in Canadian contexts as well as its consequences in their language learning. The paper concludes with the story’s implications for discussing race and alternative ways of talking about privilege among racial minorities regarding transformation of the value of the linguistic capital across different linguistic markets in today’s world of globalisation.

Disney, Children and Race

Images from Children's Movies

  (from left to right) Robert Lopez, Idina Menzel & Demi Levato; the talent behind “Elsa” of Frozen

I don’t pay much attention to the Academy Awards anymore for various reasons among them racial inequity, emphasis on commercialization, consumerism, and wealth, as well as the perpetuation of harmful normative stereotypes about practically everything from gender roles and sexual orientation, to class, culture and language. And of course I’m the mother of a young child and just don’t have time to watch movies. That said there was one win that especially caught my multiracial eye this year. Robert Lopez along with his wife nabbed Best Original Song for their wildly popular ballad “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen. Significantly, the award catapulted multiracial Filipino Robert Lopez to rare status, the 12th and youngest EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) winner ever. I do pay attention to something like that because my mixed race Asian son has so, so, so few racial role models that hold a solid standing in the public image. As he grows up I want to be able to point out leaders to him and say, “See! YOU can be a songwriter, politician, Olympian, CEO, activist, author, actor, etc. too!” But that’s really hard to do right now when I can barely find children’s books that reflect his racial image.

Hadn’t heard the song yet, but certainly made a point to after that. Screened it on YouTube thinking for sure I’d show it to kiddo. But then some other uncomfortable things quickly caught my eye. For one, multiracial Asian Robert Lopez penned the song, it was voiced-over by Ashkenazi Jew Idina Menzel and rendered (for the credits) by Mexican-American pop star Demi Levato, but in the actual film? The tune is sung by the character “Elsa” who is drawn incredibly white. Not only that, but in the movie as the sequence progresses from her being depressed and constrained to enlightened and empowered, she magically morphs from wearing dark clothing (in the dark) to, as she becomes more “free,” wearing a bright-white-sky-blue snow royalty dress (at gleaming sunrise):

Then in subsequently watching Levato’s music video for her pop version of the same, I was deeply disturbed to see that the multiracial singer (yep she’s mixed too) had had her hair lightened to blonde and that the exact same clothing/lighting transition from dark-to-light is used again:

I’m sorry but no way in hell am I going to let my brown son, who has already shown strong signs of internalizing/normalizing white phenotype at the expense of rejecting his own (http://multiasianfamilies.blogspot.com/2013/05/mirror-mirror.html), watch these videos or become enchanted with them in any form. Nobody really has “white” or “black” skin – we are shades of browns, tans, pinks, peaches, etc. – nor do we have “white” or “black” souls. Yet these polarized colors supposedly signal not only a person’s race but also diametrically opposed measures of their inherent value and worth? This was a concept developed by English settlers of America 4 centuries ago to build a rational for the devastation of indigenous and dark-skinned peoples:

“[English colonists]…had the power to shape the everyday terminology used in interaction with one another and with those they oppressed. Increasingly, skin color was linked to older color meanings in English. In Old English, the word ‘black’ meant sooted, while the word ‘white’ meant to gleam brightly, as for a candle. In line with earlier Christian usage, the word ‘black’ was used by the English colonists to describe sin and the devil. Old images of darkness and blackness as sinister were transferred to the darker-skinned peoples exploited in the system of slavery” (Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, And Future Reparations by Joe Feagin, 2014, p. 68).

But unbelievably our kids still receive these same strong messages today about race and who does or does not matter. This stuff runs really, really deep. “White is right” is still all over the place in ways we adults have become so used to, we may not even notice. Take for instance Pixar’s 2009 film Up which featured Asian American Boy Scout “Russell,” one of very few animated films to ever feature an Asian character. Not only is Russell a total do-gooder-over-achiever (model minority), but he’s overweight (“unattractive”), has a speech impediment/accent (forever foreigner), looks nothing like his voice-over talent Jordan Nagai (invisible) AND ultimately is saved by a white man who acts as a surrogate-substitute father (China remains #1 source of internationally adopted US children) to replace his absent Asian father (Asian men = emasculated).

Children's movie stars

Jordon Nagai with “Russell” of Pixar’s Up

By contrast, consider some of the other white film children of Pixar (which was acquired by Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion): “Andy” of the Toy Story franchise is essentially the center of the movie’s universe and is completely idolized by his toys who would lay their lives down for him. “Boo” of Monsters, Inc and her laughter revolutionize Monster University’s approach to harnessing good energy. “Violet” of The Incredibles is a sullen tween/teen who can vanish, cast powerful force fields and discovers her astounding inner beauty throughout the course of the film. Also of The Incredibles, “Dash” can run really, really fast and see truths his family find difficult to see:

Pixar Children

(clockwise from upper left): “Andy” of Toy Story, “Boo” of  Monsters, Inc., “Dash” and “Violet” of The Incredibles)

 

And I’m only scratching the surface here. Where also are strong non-stereotypical depictions of Black, American Indian, Latina/o, mixed race, etc. children who identify as nonwhite? I do firmly believe all of us have an obligation to pay responsible, critical and intelligent attention to this disproportionate, skewed racial messaging still being spoon-fed younger generations. To be clear, I absolutely am not arguing that white children (or people) should be devalued. But I am arguing that no child should be elevated in a way that results in other children feeling less worthwhile. Here is the core truth folks, racism dehumanizes us all. Until we can see that every child/person has true, innate beauty that deserves recognition and support — we have a long way to go.

 

~ This post was written by Sharon H Chang and originally appeared at her blog MultiAsianFamilies.

 

Hollywood’s Post-Racial Mirage

The increase of colorblind casting in sci-fi television shows like “The Walking Dead” and “Sleepy Hollow” suggests that a “post-racial revolution” is being televised, according to a writer at CNN. John Blake especially celebrates shows like “Arrow,” which have a diverse racial cast and manage in many instances to avoid stereotypes. Certainly, I agree with Blake that television is slowly but surely diversifying in ways that it simply has not been diverse over the last decade. (ABC’s “Scandal” has a diverse cast, a black female lead, and is one of the most popular shows on television. It is certainly a personal favorite.)

But I’m not sure post-racialism is a thing to want, that it should be our goal.

Cosby Scandal images

(Image source)

First, although television seems to be changing, we should not forget that 20 years ago television was more diverse. When we tell ourselves these post-racial fantasies of progress, we act like more black people cast in roles that have traditionally gone to white people is progress. Second, we act as though this is the best definition of diversity. I came of age in the 1990s, where there were several black shows that populated the landscape of my adolescence – “The Cosby Show,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Martin,” “In Living Color,” “Living Single,” “Sister Sister,” “The Parent ‘Hood,” “The Wayans,” “Smart Guy,” “Hanging With Mr. Cooper,” and “Family Matters.” As a little kid, I watched “227″ and “Amen.” All of these shows were spread out over a combination of minor networks like UPN and the WB and the traditional major networks.

Slowly by the late 1990s all black shows were being outsourced to the minor networks. Then those networks consolidated, with UPN and the WB becoming the CW, and then the CW decided in the late 2000s to move from an “urban programming format.” The same thing is true of the movie industry. In the 1990s, there were black movies – black gangsta movies, black love movies, black family movies. “Boyz N the Hood,” “Love Jones” and “Soul Food” are representative classic black movies of the era. By the mid-2000s, the only person able to command an impressive box office showing was Tyler Perry.

 

Commitment to racial diversity on the big and small screens has always been fickle.

Now the tide is changing as black actors are being asked to do black versions of white movies like “About Last Night” or the thinly veiled mashup of “The Hangover” and “Bridesmaids,” that will be “Think Like a Man, Too.” I have seen or plan to see these movies, because I like seeing people who look like me on the big screen. But I’m bothered by the idea that progress means black people’s lives can fit into traditional white narratives. Why are black stories particular, but white stories universal? Surely this is not the best definition of diversity.

And it certainly is not progress. It’s more like the gentrification of media, being marketed to us as progress. Under the logic of gentrification, both the physical kind and this new mediated kind, those of us who harken back to a prior moment when people of color could live and work and be represented on their own terms are seen as barriers to progress. Even though we are made to witness the systematic removal of people of color from posts and property that they have labored for generations to have access to, we are supposed to be impressed when these new social and geographical formations allow token participation by people of color, who are viewed as having crossover appeal. To be clear, crossing over means that despite your color, white people like you. It’s an ugly truth, but we should tell it. And given the racist audience backlash to the casting of “The Hunger Games” character Rue as  black and to the new version of Annie starring African-American Quvenzhané Wallis, I’m not sure we should actually believe this optimistic narrative of post-racial revolution.

In fact, the backlash toward these young black characters is more in line with a recent finding from  the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, that of 3,200 children’s books published in 2013, only 93 were about black characters. To this day, I keep a list of children’s stories that feature black girl protagonists, so that my friends with daughters can have culturally relevant books for their children.

African-American author Walter Dean Myers penned a response to the children’s book study in the New York Times. I didn’t even know people wrote children’s books about African-Americans until I stumbled upon a whole shelf of Mr. Myers’ books one lazy summer when my mother left me at the library all day. I eagerly brought home a copy of the teenage love story “Motown and Didi,” which remains a favorite to this day, alongside a stack of books that included stories about the Box Car Children and the Sweet Valley Twins. My personal favorite was Baby Sitters Club books, but those only came out once a month, and I usually had devoured them by the second day after purchase. And while the characters were mostly white, part of being a voracious-reading black kid in the ’90s meant you learned to relate to white children, and to identify with the “universality” of their narratives.

I also vividly remember my joy at seeing and eagerly purchasing a copy of Myers’ “The Mouse Rap” in 1992. Though I preferred stories with female protagonists, the chocolate black boy on the cover, who had dreams of being a rapper, appealed to me.

As a young black girl growing up in a predominantly white environment, race mattered. Despite my attempts to mimic the cultural habits and speaking styles of my white counterparts, a journey to racial self-awareness that got me mercilessly teased by my black counterparts, I was never going to be white and didn’t especially want to be. Like other children, I wanted to fit in and not be bullied. Reading children’s and young adult stories with black characters helped me to imagine other ways to be black besides the sometimes limiting representations that I saw in my immediate environment. Those black stories also affirmed my nerd self, letting me know that white children didn’t have a monopoly on smarts, and that I didn’t have to jettison blackness to embrace nerd-dom. Seeing ourselves represented, not as devoid of race but as shaped by and deeply influenced by race, matters. To have race not as a biological but as a social condition is not a bad thing. We all do.

And until all of us – white people included — grapple with what this means, until we can tell the truth honestly about it, our swift desire to get to a post-racial future will remain a gilded project, and one steeped in dishonesty.

That kind of dishonesty will have us doing as John Blake did, invoking the work of Octavia Butler, an African-American sci-fi author, to make the case for post-racialism. I think Butler would take deep issue with being read into a genealogy of post-racial cultural production. She thought that black life provided the ground upon which to explore questions of dystopic futures, life after armageddon, and other forms of relationship to the human body, to African-American history, and to the time-space continuum. Blackness is central, rather than incidental to her work.

For the young black time-raveling teens in Kiese Laymon’s “Long Division,” their Mississippi-inflected, crooked-letter blackness is central to who they understand themselves to be. These characters, and African-Americans more generally, to disagree with Harlem Renaissance thinker George Schuyler, are not simply “lampedblack Anglo-Saxons,” dropped into the middle of an Ebony version of “A Wrinkle in Time.”   

Butler, Myers and Laymon show us black possibility through their fearless engagement with what it means to be both human and black. The stories they tell, the movies and shows that could be made from those stories, are far better models for diversity than our current infatuation with colorblind casting.

Post-racism, not post-racialism, should be our goal. To be American means we are deeply shaped by narratives of race, culture, and power. And celebrating our multiculturalism is not a bad thing. But multiculturalism and post-racialism are not the same. In their most ideal states, one recognizes the power, possibility and gifts of our differences and uses those truths to connect us. The other – the latter — erases the salience of those differences and attempts to use the lie of sameness to connect us. As ever, the question for us remains, what kind of nation do we want to be?

~ This post was written by Brittney Cooper who is a contributing writer at Salon and a Professor at Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter at @professorcrunk.  The original post appeared at Salon and you can read it here.

White Women in American Pop Culture

Today begins the third part of the Trouble with White Women series here at the RR blog.

To briefly review where we’ve been, we started with Part I. White Women in the Early U.S., where we explored white women’s role in slavery, lynching, and the racial origins of early feminism. Then, we turned to Part II. The Professionalization of White Women, in which we explored some of the process of learning to be a white woman, the second wave of feminism, affirmative action, and just last week, the trouble with “leaning in” to corporate feminism.  Part III takes up the issue of white women in American pop culture.

White women dominate popular culture and the collective imagination about crime in ways that undermine our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.    There are so many examples of the representation of white women in popular culture, it’s difficult to narrow the discussion to just a few.  Even though white women are seemingly everywhere in popular culture, their race, their whiteness, is rarely remarked upon.

Contemporary Hollywood Movies 

While there’s some discussion of the lack of leading roles for women in Hollywood movies, there’s relatively little attention paid to the fact that the preponderance of the women’s roles go to white women.   And, it’s not simply a question of casting, it’s also a matter of what kinds of stories get told.   In the scripts, as well as in the casting, white women are often at the center of movies in particularly racialized ways.   Here are just a few examples:

In Eat, Pray, Love a recent film based on the best-selling memoir by the same name, and starring Julia Roberts, an upper middle-class white woman leaves her husband, and sets out to travel the world in a journey of self-discovery.

Sandip Roy points out the many similarities between the lead characters’ quest and that of colonizers, where:

“They wanted the gold, the cotton, and laborers for their sugar plantations. And they wanted to bring Western civilization, afternoon tea and anti-sodomy laws to godforsaken places riddled with malaria and Beriberi.   The new breed is more sensitive, less overt. They want to spend a year in a faraway place on a “journey.” But the journey is all about what they can get. Not gold, cotton or spices anymore. They want to eat, shoot films (or write books), emote and leave. They want the food, the spirituality, the romance.   … She tries not to be the foreign tourist but she does spend an awful lot of time with the expats whether it’s the Swede in Italy, the Texan in India or the Brazilian in Bali. The natives mostly have clearly assigned roles. Language teacher. Hangover healer. Dispenser of fortune-cookie-style wisdom. Knowledge, it seems, is never so meaningful as when it comes in broken English, served up with puckish grins, and an idyllic backdrop. The expats have messy histories, but the natives’ lives, other than that teenaged arranged marriage in India, are not very complicated. They are there as the means to her self discovery. After that is done, it’s time to book the next flight.”

Although Roy names quite clearly the first-world privilege of this movie character, I would extend that analysis to include her race and her gender.  While it’s possible to imagine a woman of color in the leading role, or even a (white) man in the leading role, it’s unlikely that such a film would have been produced had the lead been say, Tyson Beckford  (lovely as he is).  More to the point, if we’re engaged by this story of a white woman who struggles because she has “no passion, no spark, no faith” and needs to go away for one year,  this raises the question (as Roy does) about where do people in Indonesia and India go away to when they lose their passion, spark and faith?  It’s precisely because this is a white woman that producers believe that we as an audience will be interested in this story.

The Sandra Bullock vehicle Blind Side is another example of the white woman as a central, racialized figure in a movie.  As you may recall, the movie is based on the true story of a white woman who adopts an African American boy who comes from a poor family.   I wrote about this moviewhen it came out last year and noted that it’s a version of the “white savior film” that many sociologists have studied.   The film was a huge hit at the box office (grossing approximately$255 million dollars) and earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award for Best Actress. It also seems to have prompted something of a life-imitating-art moment for Bullock who, shortly after the film – and her marriage – ended, adopted an African American child.

 

The entire premise of the film Blind Side rests on the race and gender of the lead character; there’s no story here without the central fact that this is a white woman adopting a black child.    Imagine a Tyler Perry production where Janet Jackson is the playing the lead and she takes in a poor, African American child.  It might get produced (by Perry and maybe Oprah) but it’s not going to do $255 million at the box office and Ms. Jackson (lovely as she is) is not getting an Oscar nod.   The whiteness of the lead female character is the sine qua non of theBlind Side.

The appeal of white women as lead characters holds true in films produced outside Hollywood as well.   The wildly popular Milliennium trilogy of books by the late Swedish journalist Stieg Larsson has been made into a series of films.  In the first of these, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, down-on-his-luck journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) joins forces with bisexual-computer-hacker-in-a-black-leather-jacket Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) to fight a ring of serial killer neo-Nazis (no seriously).

The Lisbeth Salander character – both in print and on film – is being widely heralded as afeminist icon for the current era (although there’s some debate about whether the feminism in Larsson’s trilogy is weighed down by the heavy dose of sexual violence).   The Salander character’s Otherness is marked through her bi-sexuality, yet she remains a “white savior.”  As sociologist Matthew Hughey has noted about the classic white savior from a film of another era, Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lisbeth Salander embodies a new white savior with a punk, quasi-feminist flair.

Missing White Woman Syndrome

One of the most telling, and damaging, ways that white women’s central place in the collective imagination shapes how we think about race and racism has to do with crime.    The overwhelmingly majority of crime in the U.S. is intra-racial crime, that is crime committed against people by members of their own race.   And, sadly, a disproportionate amount of crime that occurs is black-on-black crime.  Our jails and prisons house some 2 million incarcerated people, the vast majority of those black and brown people.   Yet, what consistently captures the collective imagination (and the news cycle) are white women who’ve gone missing.

 

The undeniably tragic case of Natalee Holloway, who went missing while on vacation in Aruba, is just the most recent in a long line of missing white women who have captured the public’s attention, including: Polly Klaas, Chandra Levy, Elizabeth Smart, Laci Peterson, and Brianna Denison.  This phenomenon is becoming so widely recognized that the Missing White Woman Syndrome now has its own wikipedia entry.  As communications scholar Carol Liebler points out in a forthcoming article in Communication, Culture & Critique, the Missing White Woman Syndrome is also about middle-class status and perceived attractiveness.    Conversely, when black women are victims of crime, the convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions in the news coverage tends to minimize the seriousness of the violence, portrays most African American women as stereotypic Jezebels whose lewd behavior provoked assault, and absolves the perpetrators of responsibility.  (For more on this, see Meyers, “African American Women and Violence: Gender, Race, and Class in the News,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, Vol. 21, No. 2, June 2004, pp. 95–118).

This fetishizing of white womanhood has expanded to childhood.  There is perhaps no more telling example of our culture’s obsession with white femininity than the swirl of media attention around the death of JonBenét Ramsey.

 

When 6 year old JonBenét Ramsey was found dead in the basement of her parents’ home in Boulder, Colorado in 1996, there was extensive media coverage of the investigation.  All of the networks covered the murder both on their evening newscasts, and other shows such as  “”Larry King Live,” “”Dateline” and “”Hard Copy,” all did dozens, if not hundreds, of shows around the case.   Just the year before, in 1995, 763 children under age 9 were murdered in the U.S., according to the most recent FBI statistics available. This means that, on average, two children in this age bracket are murdered every day.  Yet little, if anything, is known about these children or the circumstances of their deaths because these stories are rarely are these stories picked up by national media.   Scholar Carol Leiber, noted at the time,

Her death should not be more newsworthy than that of another child because she was a white little girl with well-to-do parents. But it has been.

As with the adult version of the Missing White Woman Syndrome, the Ramsey case brought together elements of race, gender and class.   And, because the child had been involved in pageants, the case stirred up a lot of debate about the appropriateness of pageants for young girls and, among some feminists, concern about the sexualization of young girls.  The sexualization of Ramsey was also racialized.  Her success in beauty pageants was premised on her whiteness, as well as her overt sexualization.

 Why Does it Matter that White Women are Central to Popular Culture?

So, what difference does it make that white women are placed at the center in pop culture and our collective imagination about crime?   In my view, this matters for several reasons, including:

  • The relentless focus on white women is a key part of the white racial frame. This frame undermines our ability to grasp the reality of race and racism.
  • The Missing White Woman is a distraction. When our collective attention around crime is on the latest Missing White Woman, as tragic is that is for the individual family of that woman,  what we’re not talking about is the mass incarceration and the establishment of a New Jim Crow that disproportionately affects black and brown people.
  • White feminism, without attention to racial justice, makes an easy partnership with white supremacy. As I noted previously, white feminism – if it’s only focused on a kind of crude parity with (white) men – is not incompatible racism.  In fact, many of the avowed white supremacist women I studied in Cyber Racism view themselves as feminists.  And, there’s nothing inconsistent between white supremacy and white feminism.  That’s why it’s so important for a critically engaged feminism include a committment to racial justice.

White women hold a central place in the western, cultural imagination (for more on this point, see Vron Ware’s classic book, Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History, Verso Press, 1992).  Yet, their whiteness often goes unremarked upon (for more on this point, see Ruth Frankenberg’s excellent book, from which this series of posts is borrowing a title,White Women, Race Matters, University of Minnesota Press, 1993).